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Roksana makes light work of Ascot rivals

Roksana returned to the scene of her fine effort in the Long Walk Hurdle to readily outclass her three foes in the Matchbook Betting Podcast Mares’ Hurdle at Ascot.

Ridden with cool confidence from off the pace set by Magic Of Light and Coded Message, the 8-15 favourite turned into the home straight with jockey Harry Skelton holding a double handful.

Waiting until approaching the final flight, Skelton let out an inch of rein and Roksana sprinted clear of Magic Of Light, with Eglantine Du Seuil back in third just ahead of Coded Message.

Trainer Dan Skelton will look at two options at the Cheltenham Festival, including the World Hurdle for his impressive winner, who was third to Paisley Park and Thyme Hill in the Long Walk. But for now the mare will enjoy a well-earned easy few days.

Skelton’s assistant Tom Messenger said: “It was always the plan to give her three races – at Wetherby, the Long Walk and this race – before letting her down ahead of a possible trip to Cheltenham. It’s now up in the air whether she runs in the mares’ race there, the Stayers’ Hurdle or waits for Aintree.

“You would like to think she wouldn’t be far away if we headed for the Stayers’, and it looks up for grabs in an open year. You have to be in it to win it, and she’s a tough individual that can be kept in hard training.”

Roksana out to uphold Long Walk form back at Ascot

Dan Skelton is hoping Roksana can repeat her excellent Long Walk performance on her return to Ascot for the Matchbook Betting Podcast Mares’ Hurdle.

The nine-year-old was beaten only two lengths when third to Paisley Park in the Grade One over an extended three miles in December and runs against own her sex again on Saturday.

However, it will be no walkover – because the opposition includes Magic Of Light, winner of this race for the last two years.

“I’m delighted with her – it was a great run in the Long Walk over the course and distance,” said Skelton.

“Obviously Magic Of Light is the one to beat, but I’m also respectful of the others in there.

“I think it’s a strong mares’ race, but I’m very happy with ours.”

Magic Of Light, trained in Ireland by Jessica Harrington and runner-up to Tiger Roll in the 2019 Grand National, has already made a successful visit to Britain this season to win a Listed mares’ chase at Newbury for the third year running.

“She is going for a hat-trick in the race and is in great form,” said Kate Harrington, assistant to her mother.

“She is entered in the Gold Cup and the Mares’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, and mum is thinking of running her in the Gold Cup.”

Magic Of Light is bidding to win Ascot's Grade Two hurdle for a third time
Magic Of Light is bidding to win Ascot’s Grade Two hurdle for a third time (Bradley Collyer/PA)

Paul Nicholls believes Eglantine Du Seuil can give a good account of herself, with the help of a 6lb concession from the big two.

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“She ran a cracker on her latest start for us six weeks ago in a competitive mares’ handicap hurdle at Cheltenham, where she came from off the pace to be second to The White Mouse,” Nicholls told Betfair.

“This is a new trip for her – and although I can’t be sure she stays three miles, she was keeping on well at the finish at Cheltenham.

“I’m hopeful Eglantine Du Seuil can run tidily, getting 6lb from two smart mares Magic Of Light and Roksana.”

Jeremy Scott is on a discovery mission with Dashel Drasher, who lines up for the bet365 Handicap Chase.

The Somerset trainer wants to find out if his lightly-raced eight-year-old can mix it with seasoned campaigners off his current mark in a competitive race such as this.

What Dashel Drasher has in his favour is a course-and-distance success on his latest start, albeit a three-horse affair.

“He’s come out of his last race really well. It’s very much to find out whether he’s at that level,” said Scott.

“We’ve only ever raced in those novice chases and a graduation chase, so how solid his handicap mark is we don’t know.

“It’s very much in a decent-sized field. I hope he runs well. I was pleased with the way he raced last time, but this will be a different proposition.”

Rose Dobbin has had this race in mind for Jonniesofa for some time – but did not expect it to be as competitive as it has turned out.

However, she reports the 11-year-old to be in good shape following his victory at Carlisle last month.

“He’s doing really well. He’s in great order. I’m very happy with him,” said the Northumberland trainer.

“We picked out this race a while ago, thinking conditions would suit him. Unfortunately, it seems to be quite a competitive renewal, but we’ll go and take our chance and see how he gets on.”

Skelton reports Bennys King to be in prime condition as he attempts to go one better than 12 months ago.

“He won there last time, (and) two-miles-five is a great trip for him,” said the Alcester trainer.

“He looks fantastic – this is the perfect race for him.

“He’s gone up in the handicap, which is making life harder, but I couldn’t be any happier with him.”

Nicholls was delighted to see Capeland return to winning ways at Wincanton, although it means he must race off a career-high mark.

Capeland is up to a career-high mark on Saturday
Capeland is up to a career-high mark on Saturday (PA)

“I was thrilled to see him bounce back to form with a stylish success a fortnight ago off a mark of 149 at Wincanton, back up in trip to two and a half miles,” he said.

“Capeland is now up to a career-high mark of 153 at a track which we know he likes, but he is another who wouldn’t want any more rain at Ascot.”

Tom Lacey is looking forward to having Kateson back on the track in the Matchbook Better Way To Bet Holloway’s Handicap Hurdle, for the first time in seven weeks.

The Herefordshire trainer believes the eight-year-old runs well when fresh, so has given him a break since he was successful at Aintree.

“He seems in good order. I think the trip on that ground will be right up his street, fingers crossed,” said Lacey.

Tom Lacey has given Kateson a break since his Aintree victory
Tom Lacey has given Kateson a break since his Aintree victory (PA)

“He’s a horse that runs best fresh. We’ve just been waiting to find the races for him.

Nicholls is confident of a strong performance from Danny Kirwan.

The Ditcheat handler said: “He has had one or two issues that have interrupted his career but is now in as good a place as we’ve had him for a long time, and it was great to see him show what he can do with a fluent victory over this trip at Ascot two months ago.

“Next time at Cheltenham he didn’t stay three miles. Danny has been working with Politologue and will be much happier back at this trip on testing ground that he relishes. I am expecting a big run from him in a competitive race.”

Captain Chaos bidding to go one place better in Classic Chase

Captain Chaos, runner-up in the McCoy Contractors Civil Engineering Classic Handicap Chase 12 months ago, is among 13 horses declared for the staying event over three miles and five furlongs at Warwick on Saturday.

Dan Skelton’s charge was beaten 10 lengths by Kimberlite Candy in 2020, but got compensation when winning the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster in February.

Captain Chaos is not the only horse from last year’s Classic Chase returning to Warwick. Fergal O’Brien’s Petite Power, who was third, and the fifth home, the Ben Pauling-trained third Le Breuil, are again in opposition.

Walk In The Mill, a two-time Becher Chase winner for Robert Walford, bids to get back in the groove after falling in the same Aintree race in December.

The Hollow Ginge, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, tries again after unseating his rider in the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow last weekend.

Alan King’s Notachance, Storm Control from Kerry Lee’s stable and Oliver Greenall’s Late Romantic have been in good winning form this term.

Next Destination will face just two rivals in the Grade Two McCoy Contractors Hampton Novices’ Chase.

The nine-year-old made a winning debut over fences at Newbury seven weeks ago on his second start for Paul Nicholls. Next Destination was previously with Willie Mullins, for whom he won two Grade One novice hurdles.

Taking him on are Colin Tizzard’s Fiddlerontheroof and Golan Fortune, trained by Phil Middleton.

Adrimel must give weight to all 11 rivals in the Ballymore Leamington Novices’ Hurdle.

The Tom Lacey-trained six-year-old has created a good impression with victories at Sandown and Haydock.

However, he takes on several promising sorts, including David Pipe’s Make Me A Believer, the Tizzard-trained Oscar Elite, Harry Fry’s Pure Bliss and Midnight River for the Skelton team.

Monday Musings: Trainer Titles

The frost relented at three of Paul Nicholls’ most productive racecourses on Saturday morning and the 11-times champion National Hunt trainer took heavy toll with a remarkable seven winners, writes Tony Stafford. Kempton, Chepstow and above all Wincanton are the three.

At the same time he was emphatically (albeit inwardly) announcing that his re-building of stable strength back to that of its heyday when Kauto Star and Denman were in their pomp, has been fully achieved.

I was half aware of somebody being quoted on the television last night – definitely not in my favourite French-language and subtitled detective show Spiral on BBC4. It was: “Men can lie, women can lie, but numbers can’t!” The numbers are there for all to see in the 2020-21 jump trainers’ championship.

The Nicholls decline, if you could call it that, was characterised last season by a first failure in 19 to reach 100 wins, when 96 victories from 445 runs brought total UK prizemoney of £2.34million. Nicky Henderson, his sole realistic challenger over the past decade, won his fifth title and third of the last four with 118 winners and £2.54million in prizemoney.

That said, the normal post-Cheltenham section of the campaign with its handsome prizemoney levels especially at Aintree, Sandown’s finals day, and the Ayr Scottish Grand National meeting distorted the figures. Nicholls’ routine century would have been assured and the relatively close money margin for Henderson could easily have been bridged.

Henderson’s first interruption of a near-Martin Pipe-like monopoly for Nicholls since his first title in 2005-6 came in 2012-13, 27 years after his own first Trainers’ Championship in 1985-6. Henderson, now 70, lacks nothing in energy and horse-power but the die is already cast for 2020-21.

While Nicholls has been serenely proceeding towards title number 12 with already 107 victories and £1.46m in money won, Henderson is languishing on less than half the monetary rewards with £673K and just over half the winners, 57 from 268 runs, both well down on his normal schedule.

Considering the jumps season didn’t begin until July 1, Nicholls’s pace has been remarkable but so too has Dan Skelton’s 74 wins and £823k from 408 runs even allowing for the fact that his customary summer starting splurge has been abandoned – for the better – with some potential stars in the pot.

Lower down, some interesting names follow and Evan Williams, after his emotional capturing of the re-scheduled Coral Welsh Grand National with the heavily-backed and well-named in the circumstances favourite, Secret Reprieve, just edged over the half-million mark from only 30 wins.

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Williams was talking up the prospects of Secret Reprieve’s tackling a Grand National at Aintree and he will be hoping on Tuesday morning to see the Ruckers’ seven-year-old getting a few pounds more than his present mark of 142 – he was able to run on Saturday off 8lb lower after his previous win.  Secret Reprieve would probably make it into the top 40 with 142 but 145 makes it a certainty - if Covid doesn’t intervene again.

The next three trainers in the list, all within a winner or two of getting over the half-million are Messrs O’Neill, Fergal O’Brien and Twiston-Davies. Fergal’s consistent form has brought him to 70 compared to a previous best of 63 and with expansion firmly in place, a first century is the aim and seemingly a realistic one with three months to go, subject to acts of God, God forbid!

Nicholls’ Saturday seven-timer was also a contributor to another multi-winning performance on the day. Daryl Jacob must have gone to Wincanton confident of winning the opener on Ben Pauling’s highly-regarded Malinello but found Nicholls’ Flash Collonges, one of two Harry Skelton winners for his former boss, much too good.

I’ve no doubt that when that one lost he didn’t expect to win on five of his remaining six mounts.

The Nicholls winner for Jacob was Capeland, a 6-1 shot in the second most valuable race of the day there, the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase and the jockey also won races for Robert Walford, Alan King, Pauling and Milton Harris.

Within that quintet, he collected the big race, the re-staged Dipper Novices Chase, just a three-runner affair, on Messire Des Obeaux, where Alan King’s gelding shocked odds-on Protektorat in a rare reverse for the Skeltons in recent times. Both Flash Collonges and Messire Des Obeaux are sons of the late-lamented Saddler Maker.

Jacob’s five-timer worked out at a massive 3275-1. Nicholls’ septet, while not quite his best - he’s had an eight-in-a-day before now – amounts to more than treble that at 10,418-1. Of course to get the latter up, you’d need to navigate the 11 losers that besmirched his record. Jacob has surged onto 39 wins for the season but the title-holder Brian Hughes, with 90, looks to have a strong grip on his trophy, currently having 15 and 19 in hand of the two Harrys, Cobden and Skelton.

It’s very unusual in the depths of winter that Ireland suffers more than the UK, but there has been a flurry of abandonments across the Irish Sea with frost as the principal factor. Whatever happened to the milder west winds picking up moisture as they sweep across the Atlantic?

The perennial struggle at the top of the table there between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott is as compelling as ever. Usually at this point in the season Elliott has been ahead but this time it’s the other way round.

Mullins has already gone past the century with 104 wins from only 326 runs to earn €2.18m at a spectacular 32% strike rate.  An impressive 76 of the 162 individual horses he’s run since racing resumed have won.

Elliott is only around €70k behind Mullins in winnings but it has taken 125 wins from a bumper exactly 800 runs – almost double both Nicholls’ and Skelton’s number and treble Henderson’s – to get that close. Equally he has needed 292 horses, 90 of which have won, to make it that far.

Mullins is having his normal effect on the jockeys’ title race. Since Ruby Walsh’s retirement Paul Townend has been in pole position, but third-placed Henry de Bromhead’s 69 victories have given a big boost to Rachael Blackmore, his stable jockey.

Townend leads on 69, all but five for the Closutton trainer, but is far from secure for another title as Blackmore’s 46 wins for her boss have been supplemented by another 19 from outside rides making the deficit only four.

Talking of jockeys, the 2021 Flat championship will be very interesting given Oisin Murphy starts the year under a three-month ban imposed by the French authorities. He managed to get it reduced from the original six months on appeal and while it doesn’t interfere with the championship which starts in May, or the first phase of turf racing or indeed anything after March 11, it could still have an effect on his confidence.

No need to go into how he got the trace of drugs in his system. In these perilous times I wonder how many people contracting Covid, like my mate Steve Gilbey who said it was the most frightening experience of his life, know where they caught it. He says maybe it was Christmas shopping in Sainsburys.

Steve, a one-time repo man and night club bouncer before his more acceptable roles as a bodyguard and then Ray Tooth’s much-valued right-hand man, has seen and heard of many friends and some family members who haven’t managed to stave off the effects of the virus. I pray – as does Ray – that he’ll get through, just as I do that my son, his wife and their son, whose symptoms are less severe, will all recover soon.

Back to Flat jockeys, though, and as I said it could be a pivotal year. One Whatsapp I received just the other day made very interesting reading. It claimed that Ben Curtis would be joining Mark Johnston as stable jockey. Now confirmed as true, his odds of 10/1 for the title have plummeted to 3/1.

Mark’s most active jockeys, Joe Fanning and Franny Norton, both celebrated their 50th birthdays last year. Norton is the older by eight weeks, his birthday coming on July 27 to Fanning’s on September 24th (the same as my son incidentally!).

Between them they rode 56% of Johnston’s winners and 55% of the stable’s runners. Fanning was the busier – well, he’s younger, it makes sense! – with 50 wins from exactly 400 rides in 2020. Old-man Franny was only 75% as busy but just as tidy with his 45 from 300 rides. No other jockey achieved more than the 15 wins of P J McDonald. Then came William Buick and Silvestre De Sousa with ten each.  Curtis had six wins from 35 rides for the stable.

Their longevity says much for their iron constitutions but even more for the amazing loyalty of the trainer. Had he not kept them on, riding many of the yard’s best horses as well as the majority of the lesser performers, they would probably have retired a while ago.

A second compelling item on the same Whatsapp message concerned Paul Mulrennan who it seems might be getting closer to a connection with Karl Burke. Interesting? Not many!

Nicholls confident Stormy Ireland can regain winning thread

Paul Nicholls expects Stormy Ireland to make the most of a significant drop in class the Unibet “You’re On” Mares’ Hurdle.

The Jared Sullivan-owned seven-year-old will bid to strike gold on her fourth start since joining the Ditcheat handler from Willie Mullins when stepping back up to two and a half miles in the Listed contest at Sandown.

Although Stormy Ireland beat only one rival home in the Grade Two International Hurdle at Cheltenham last month, Nicholls believes the result was better than it looks on paper.

Speaking in his Betfair column, Nicholls said: “Chasing didn’t work out for her in two starts this season, so she was back over hurdles last time when she ran much better than her finishing position suggests in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham three weeks ago.

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“That has sharpened her and this Listed mares’ hurdle is a more suitable target for Stormy Ireland, who has a 4lb penalty to carry for winning a Grade Three race in Ireland.

“I’d say she should be hard to beat stepping up in trip against her own sex.”

Robin Gold has been in prolific form this season winning four of her last five starts, however, trainer Dan Skelton feels she will have to improve again if she is to add to that tally.

Skelton said: “Though Harry (Skelton) won on her last time, Bridget (Andrews) will get the ride on Robin Gold as she gets on very well with her.

“She has been very progressive this season, but this is a massive step up in class again though.

“The track will suit her as it is a track you can play late on. She has got a lot on her plate being realistic though, but we are looking forward to giving it a go.”

Harry Fry is confident testing conditions will play to the strengths of Whitehotchillifili, who finished second off top weight in a handicap over course and distance on her latest start.

He said: “Strictly on ratings, they’ve all got plenty to find with Stormy Ireland.

“Our mare ran a really good race there a month ago under top weight.

“Conditions will not be an issue for her and hopefully she goes there with a very strong each-way chance.”

The field is completed by Flow Away from the yard of Alex Hales, the Venetia Williams-trained Quick Wave and Desaray Girl, who will represent Micky Hammond.

Shan Blue takes Kauto Star honours

Shan Blue extended his unbeaten sequence over fences with a decisive victory in the Ladbrokes Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton.

Dan Skelton’s six-year-old was winning his third race in succession since beginning his chasing career this season, being up with the pace throughout and often jumping with great fluency to prevail by three and three-quarter lengths from The Big Breakaway.

The 7-4 favourite, ridden by the trainer’s brother Harry, was just a length in front at the last so needed another good jump – and duly got one, while runner-up The Big Breakaway made a mistake and stumbled on landing.

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Shan Blue then stayed on impressively – with If The Cap Fits, who had struggled to stay in touch early on, rallying late to snatch third.

Skelton said: “When you need him for a big jump to maintain a lead or maintain an advantage in a race, he is there for you.

“The reason he is a good horse is that he jumps well. He was better than average as a hurdler, but not by much – now he is a chaser you are seeing a really good horse and that is because he is a good jumper.”

Looking ahead, Skelton said: “I think an RSA could be a real stretch for him. I don’t think he is a slogger and I think today proved that, as he was very nimble at his jumps. I think with that in mind you have got to be mindful that coming back in trip is probably more sensible.

“He will be entered in both (Marsh Novices’ Chase and RSA) and we will go to the Scilly Isles perhaps on the way.

“He has got a Grade One penalty now, so we don’t need to be shouldering him with massive penalties in normal novice races and at the end of the day he has proved he can do it.”

Of The Big Breakaway, Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father Colin, said: “He ran an absolute blinder. Robbie (Power) was delighted with him and he learnt more today than he did in his first two runs over fences.

“Robbie doesn’t think he would have beaten the winner if he had winged the last as he was having to stretch to get there.

“Cheltenham obviously plays to his strengths and he looked more of a galloper there, so we will work back from the RSA. Whether we run again or not, I’m not sure. He jumped at pace today and he got in tight to a few of the last four fences, but he was clever at them and that is part of learning.”

Third Time Lucki back on track at Kempton

Third Time Lucki confirmed himself a smart prospect in returning to winning ways with a stylish success at Kempton Park.

Last season’s Champion Bumper fourth saw his unbeaten record over hurdles come to an end on his previous start when suffering a surprise defeat in a Grade Two at Cheltenham.

Ridden much closer to the pace on this occasion, the 11-10 favourite moved effortlessly into contention in the Get Your Ladbrokes £1 Free Bet Novices’ Hurdle rounding the home turn, before moving clear between the final two flights and scoring by nine lengths from long-time leader Flic Ou Voyou.

Skelton said: “The leader got away at Cheltenham and we tried to chase them, but it was too much to do in really tacky ground.

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“I thought we did quite well to get as close as we did really, as no one could bridge the gap. The winner (For Pleasure) had flown and fair play to the winner that day.

“You can see with this horse he has a lot of natural talent. Now we can ride him a bit closer to the pace, especially around a track like this, he is becoming more and more the finished article. Today’s test suited us a lot better on nicer ground.”

The Alcester handler plans to consult owners Mike and Eileen Newbould before working out where to go with Third Time Lucki, who was cut to 14-1 for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle by both Paddy Power and Betfair.

Skelton added: “I will have a chat with Mike and Eileen and see where we end up next. You can see, though, he has got a hell of a future ahead of him.

“To be fair to Mike and Eileen they have never said it is all about Cheltenham. They would be happy to do what is right for the horse and win the best races we can en route.

“Yes he will have an entry in the Supreme and yes it is likely, but if we felt there was a different route we would look at it.”

Killer Clown opened his account under rules with a first fencing victory at the fourth attempt in the Play Ladbrokes 5-A-Side On Football Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase.

Adam Wedge and Killer Clown on the way to victory
Adam Wedge and Killer Clown on the way to victory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The Emma Lavelle-trained six-year-old continued his steady progression since unseating on his chasing debut at Uttoxeter by claiming victory in the extended two-and-a-half-mile prize.

Putting in a measured round of jumping, the 9-2 shot drew steadily clear over the final three fences and seven and a half lengths in hand of Falco Blitz at the line.

Winning rider Adam Wedge said: “I think the flat track and two and a half has done him the world of good today.

“His jumping’s just got so good, he jumped them into the ground down the back straight so I could fill him turning in and he’s done it very well.

“He’s improved with every run, which is lovely to see, and hopefully there’s more to come.”

My Drogo continues progression with Ascot victory

My Drogo halved in price for the Cheltenham Festival as he ultimately ran out an impressive winner of the Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot.

A winner at Newbury last time out, that performance was littered with jumping errors but the Dan Skelton-trained winner was much slicker on this occasion.

But he was made to fight for the victory, as the Tom Symonds-trained Llandinabo Lad tried to see them all off from the front under a 5lb penalty – and it was not until after the last that My Drogo (9-1) pulled two and three-quarter lengths clear.

“I was really impressed, the second is really good in this ground – I know he was giving away a penalty, but I was really impressed with our horse and how much he’d improved jumping-wise,” Skelton told ITV Racing.

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“We’d done plenty of practice at home, but before Newbury we couldn’t get him to make a mistake so were surprised how he jumped that day because he was moderate.

“He has bundles of class, he spent all last year with Polly Gundry and never got to run in a point because of Covid, but the extra year has given him such a chance because he’s much more mature.

“I’ll talk to the owners and work out the best route, but Cheltenham has never been the be-all and end-all this year for him because he’s every inch a chaser.”

Whenever the mud is flying horses trained by Venetia Williams can be counted on to be in the mix, and the Herefordshire trainer was on the mark with Enzo D’Airy in the Sky Bet Extra Places Every Day Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase.

Winning rider Charlie Deutsch said: “I was thinking I might struggle to catch the one in front, but I was confident my lad would keep going and he’d have to be a good horse to get home having travelled like that on this ground.

“It turned out he folded in front and my lad picked up the pieces. He showed nothing over hurdles, but he jumped brilliantly today.

“You’re never afraid of the rain when you are riding for Venetia. I love riding these chasers in proper winter ground.”

Richard Johnson continued in good form with victory aboard Everglow (5-6 favourite) for his boss Philip Hobbs in the Sky Bet Money Back As Cash Maiden Hurdle.

“He jumped and travelled nicely through the race. I ended up making the running on him the last day, but he was green on his own so I wanted to get a lead,” said Johnson.

“We went very slow so I ended up in front, but he had his ears pricked and was looking at everything.

“It’s nice to get his head in front as he’s bumped into some good horses along the way.”

Paisley and Thyme ready for round two in Long Walk cracker

Thyme Hill and Paisley Park engage in what promises to be a fascinating rematch for the Porsche Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.

The Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill won three of his four starts in the novice hurdling division last season – his only defeat coming as a close-up fourth in the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival.

The six-year-old made a successful reappearance when seeing off Paisley Park by a length and a half in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle three weeks ago – and four-time champion jockey Richard Johnson hopes he can confirm his superiority this weekend.

Johnson said: “He’s in very good form. Hopefully he can build on his Newbury performance in what is a very good renewal of the race.

“It’s going to take a lot of winning, but obviously I wouldn’t swap Thyme Hill for anything else.

“I was very pleased with him at Newbury. It’s going to be testing conditions on Saturday, and whatever wins the race is going to have to put up a good performance.

“In these races, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park landed this Grade One prize during what was a faultless campaign two seasons ago.

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However, an unbeaten run of seven straight victories came to an abrupt end when he finished only seventh in defence of his Stayers’ Hurdle crown in March, after which he was found to be suffering from a heart problem.

Connections were justifiably thrilled with his Newbury comeback, and he is 3lb better off with Thyme Hill for their second clash.

“He had a lovely blow this (Friday) morning and he’s very fresh. He’s all set for Saturday,” said Lavelle.

“There’s always plenty to be done here, so you can keep focused on that before thinking too much about Saturday. I think the drive to Ascot will be when the nervous excitement will kick in.

“It’s very exciting to have horses able to run in these kind of races – and from Paisley’s point of view, it’s just lovely to see him back on the track after what happened at Cheltenham.”

Paisley Park bids to bounce back to winning ways
Paisley Park bids to bounce back to winning ways (David Davies/PA)

Paisley Park was declared a non-runner on the morning of last year’s Long Walk Hurdle because of the ultra-testing conditions.

Soft ground will again be to the fore, but Lavelle is not making any pre-race excuses, adding: “You just want everyone to have a clear run, and the best horse wins.

“You never want to run on extremes of going, but the ground is what the ground is.

“He’s handled soft ground before. I’m glad we’ve got a run under our belt before running on this ground, but I think he has every right to handle it as well as anything else, anyway.”

Main Fact bids to stretch his remarkable winning streak to double figures for trainer David Pipe.

The seven-year-old appeared to relish the step up to three miles when making it nine on the bounce in the Betfair Exchange Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle at Haydock – and now aims to complete his fairytale rise with a top-level success under conditional Fergus Gillard .

Pipe said: “He’s been fantastic. We have to improve again, and obviously the first two in the betting (Thyme Hill and Paisley Park) are the ones to beat, but at least we’ll have our favoured ground. Maybe he’ll handle the ground better than the top two.

“He keeps beating what’s put in front of him. It will be tough for him on Saturday, but he’s definitely earned his place and we’ll give it our best shot.

“If he can finish in the first three, it will be another fantastic run.”

Roksana bids to beat the boys
Roksana bids to beat the boys (Nigel French/PA)

The only mare in the field is Dan Skelton’s Roksana, who was thoroughly impressive on her return to action at Wetherby in October and has purposely been kept fresh for this race since.

Skelton said: “Obviously the boys have got to give us 7lb. She had a great run at Wetherby last time, and this has been the target since.

“I’m very happy with how she looks and she handles soft ground. It’s the first time we’ve gone to this level, and we’re excited and ready to go.”

It is five years since Thistlecrack trounced his Long Walk rivals for Colin Tizzard and Tom Scudamore and he was due to bid again but unfortunately he was withdrawn on the morning of the race due to lameness.

Skelton sets New Year’s Day target for Protektorat

Protektorat will put his unbeaten record over fences on the line at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day in the Dipper Novices’ Chase.

Trainer Dan Skelton has earmarked the Paddy Power-sponsored Grade Two prize as the next target for the five year-old, who is two from two over the bigger obstacles.

After making a winning fencing debut at Carlisle, the Listed-winning hurdler added to that success when taking a step up to two and half miles in his stride with an impressive victory at Cheltenham last month.

Skelton said: “We’ve talked about it and digested it the best we can and I think we are going to try the Dipper, as he won around Cheltenham last time and two and a half miles on soft ground around there is perfect.

“People are going to be wondering where he is going rather than us looking at who else is going to be in the race.

“We have just got to go our route and decide what is best for us and I think that is best for us.”

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While Skelton was impressed with Protektorat’s victory over two miles on his seasonal return, he believes his latest success over a longer trip was another step forward.

He said: “Cheltenham was even better than Carlisle. He races a bit more relaxed now so that is good, and he finishes his races strong.

“He was upsides Southfield Stone three out and he kicked on and off he goes. If it had been really heavy I would have gone two (miles) last time, but he is definitely happier at two and a half. “

Shan Blue will step back up to Grade One company at Kempton on Boxing Day (Tim Goode/PA)
Shan Blue will step back up to Grade One company at Kempton on Boxing Day (Tim Goode/PA)

Shan Blue will return to Grade One company for the first time since finishing sixth in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March in the Ladbrokes Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

The six-year-old, who is unbeaten in two starts over fences, was denied an outing at Huntingdon after the meeting was called off due to a waterlogged track.

Skelton said: “Shan Blue will go straight to the Kauto Star now. He has been good in his first two starts this season.

“I got on and ran him early and he had two runs in October which were both around Wetherby, one at two and a half and the other at three, and he jumped great.

“His fitness is perfect and we jump him every week and he will be ready to go on King George day. He was 1-10 on to be better chaser and I’m delighted with how it has gone. You couldn’t have dreamt it would have gone much better.”

Although Shan Blue has yet to race right-handed over fences, Skelton is confident that will not be an issue at Kempton.

He added: “I’ve not got no concerns about him going right-handed as he was second to Shishkin in the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon.

“The race at Huntingdon was there for him and he could have gone there and had a day out on a right-handed flat track as that is where he was going afterwards.

“As it turns out he probably wouldn’t have run even if they had got the meeting on, as the ground would have been testing.”

The Alcester handler plans to give Allmankind a short break following his victory in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown, before readying him for the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick in February.

He said: “Allmankind has come out the Henry VIII fine. He jumped spectacularly well. He jumped slightly out to his left which is his little trick, but it was only more noticeable over the Railway fences.

“He will go for the Kingmaker, then on to the Arkle, then to Aintree. I’m really happy winning a Grade One with him.

“I feel like he sets a decent standard for whoever takes him on next time.”

Skelton bullish as Ashtown Lad steps up in grade

Dan Skelton expects Ashtown Lad to take a “good bit of beating” in Saturday’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

The Irish point-to-point graduate was beaten on his first couple of starts over hurdles, before making it third time lucky at Wetherby in late October.

He has since followed up with a dominant display in handicap company at Uttoxeter – and Skelton believes a hat-trick could be in the offing ahead of this weekend’s Grade Two assignment.

“He carries some nice novice form and handicap form into this, which is helpful,” said the trainer.

“Three miles there won’t be a problem – he is a strong six-year-old.

“If it rains it won’t be a problem, but equally if it doesn’t rain that won’t be a problem as he is pretty versatile.

“He is not the sort of horse that will pull during a race. I think he will run his race and take a good bit of beating.”

Ashtown Lad heads a field of eight runners, with the Paul Nicholls-trained Danny Kirwan and Alan King’s Wynn House among his rivals.

Danny Kirwan steps up in class following an all-the-way victory at Ascot last month.

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Nicholls told Betfair: “He is going the right way and won well last time on soft ground at Ascot over just shy of two and a half miles. Danny is lightly raced and I’m sure there is more to come from him.

“Some might question whether he wants this step up in trip, but I’ve never doubted his stamina and think he has been crying out for three miles.”

Wynn House is two from two over hurdles and is the only mare in the line-up.

“I couldn’t find a race to run her in, to be honest. She would have a double penalty wherever she goes. She can’t run in a decent handicap as she has only had the two runs,” said King.

“We will learn an awful lot on Saturday about where we go for the rest of the season. I think the step up to three miles will suit her as she has always wanted a trip.”

Proceedings get under way with the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial, for which David Pipe’s Adagio is the likely favourite.

The second race of the afternoon is the Jockey Club Cheltenham And SW Syndicate Novices’ Chase, with Nicky Henderson declaring both Fusil Raffles and Chantry House, although the Seven Barrows handler warns Fusil Raffles is not certain to line up.

He told Unibet: “It would have to be no worse than good to soft for Fusil Raffles to run. We will just have to see what happens.

“I don’t think he is an Arkle horse, I think he is a two-and-a-half-mile horse. We haven’t been two and a half miles yet, but I am dying to do it, so it is possible that he could do that on Saturday.”

Chantry House landed cramped odds on his chasing debut at Ascot, despite not always convincing in the jumping department

Henderson added: “I think Chantry House will get further – we knew that last year – but he was third in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, so he’s not slow.

“Ascot is a big track to start with, he had to warm up to it a little bit.

“The other horse fell three or four out and then he was left with nothing much to beat. He galloped and jumped going home very well.”

The other two runners are Nick Mitchell’s Lieutenant Rocco and the Nicholls-trained Quel Destin.

Nicholls said: “He ran very well first time over fences when second at this track to Eldorado Allen in a Graded race. It was obvious that day that he needs further than two miles, so stepping him up four furlongs now should suit him much better.

“I’m sure Quel Destin will win plenty of races over fences, hopefully starting here.”

The Ditcheat handler has a strong hand in the following Spreadex Handicap Chase, with top-weight Magic Saint joined by stablemate Capeland.

He added: “Capeland looked to have every chance at Ascot three weeks ago when he led two out before finishing third in the race won by First Flow

“In hindsight, Capeland maybe got there a little bit too soon that day because he was going so well. On a different day and a different track this time there is no reason when he can’t be involved again.

“Magic Saint was very good when winning stylishly at this track a month ago and was in front and set to go close again at Ascot a week later under a penalty until walking through the second last fence.

“I’ve freshened him up since then, I’m fitting him with a tongue-tie for the first time, and I’m looking for another big run from him over a trip that plays to his strengths.”

Paul Webber’s Cheltenham Festival heroine Indefatigable heads the last of seven races – the Close Brothers Mares’ Handicap Hurdle.

Zambella completes Listed double with game Warwick effort

Daryl Jacob praised the attitude of Zambella, who maintained her unbeaten record over fences with a front-running success in the feature Wigley Group Lady Godiva Mares’ Novices’ Chase at Warwick.

Having made a winning chasing debut in a Listed contest at Bangor last time out, the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained five-year-old followed up at the same level on her first start over two and a half miles.

Although jumping out to the right on occasion, the 9-4 favourite rallied gamely before finding plenty for pressure to defeat Midnightreferendum by three and three-quarter lengths.

Jacob said: “Zambella is a good jumper, but just occasionally lacks a bit of concentration at times in her races.

“It was good performance stepping up in trip and giving weight away, as it is not easy as there were some good mares in the race.

“I thought she ground it out nicely up the home straight.

“She’s getting a bit older and wiser – hopefully she’ll be a nice mare who we can place in the right races through the season and pick up some nice prize money.

Hamilton Dici and Chester Williams on their way to winning the Wigley Group Merry Christmas Juvenile Maiden Hurdle (Tim Goode/PA)
Hamilton Dici and Chester Williams on their way to winning the Wigley Group Merry Christmas Juvenile Maiden Hurdle (Tim Goode/PA)
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Former jockey, and new mum, Lizzie Kelly celebrated her first winner since quitting the saddle in July after Hamilton Dici landed the Wigley Group Merry Christmas Juvenile Hurdle.

The Jane Williams-trained four-year-old, sporting the silks of Kelly and her husband Ed Partridge’s Valentine Bloodstock Racing outfit, made all to deny Ambassador by a head.

Chester Williams, rider, said of the 11-2 winner: “It was a learning experience for him, but he did it well and is a first winner for Lizzie and Ed’s Valentine Bloodstock

“I’m really pleased for them as it is just the sort of horse you need to get started.

“He was still green enough there, but he picked up very well when the other horse came to him and that helped him after the last.”

Jay Bee Why left trainer Alan King pleasantly surprised after pulling clear in stylish fashion to claim the Wigley Group Support Our SMEs Maiden Hurdle by nine and a half lengths.

King said: “It is a bit of a surprise because I only thought he was just ready. I thought he was very good last season, but he completely boiled over before and during the bumper at Newbury.

“We tidied up his wind this season and I put a hood on him in the preliminaries today and he was good.

“I just hoped he would run a nice race and run properly today, but he looked quite useful.”

King d'Argent on his way to making a triumphant debut over fences at Warwick (Tim Goode/PA)
King d’Argent on his way to making a triumphant debut over fences at Warwick (Tim Goode/PA)

Dan Skelton has introduced a number of useful recruits to fences this season, and King d’Argent looked another judged on his three-length success in the Wigley Building & Development Novices’ Handicap Chase.

Skelton said of the 11-4 favourite: “To be fair, he was quite a good juvenile and he was fourth in the Fred Winter two years ago.

“He has blossomed since he started schooling over fences and I’m just delighted with the way he has attacked them and he really liked that.

“How high we can go, I don’t know, but that is a good start.”

Lorcan Murtagh partnered his first winner since joining forces with trainer Harry Fry after Might I (16-1) struck gold by a length and a quarter in the Wigley Group Daimler Powerhouse Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race.

The winning rider, who was previously based with Donald McCain, said: “He gave me a lovely feel. I got there a mile too soon, but there was nothing taking me into the race.

“I’ve been with Harry for two months now and that is my first winner for him, so it is nice to get that monkey off my back.”

Victory for Might I completed an across-the-card double for Fry, who was also on the mark at Taunton with Boothill.

Allmankind powers to Henry VIII success

Allmankind put in an exemplary round of jumping to maintain his unbeaten record over fences in the Planteur At Chapel Stud Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown.

After making a winning debut over fences at Warwick, having previously finished third on his final start over hurdles on his seasonal return at Cheltenham, the Dan Skelton-trained four-year-old took another step forward by claiming the second Grade One of his career.

Though pressed for the lead down the back straight by eventual third Ga Law, the Tim and Bill Gredley-owned gelding soon moved back into a clear initiative he would maintain to the line.

Impressive Ffos Las scorer Hitman moved off in pursuit of the 2-1 favourite on the approach to the final two fences, but he could not find the gears to go with Allmankind and two and a half lengths separated the pair at the line.

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Skelton said: “It was brilliant. I’m just delighted we ended up going down the chasing route. We were a little bit head-scratching after his debut run of the season at Cheltenham. Perhaps the horse lulled me into a false sense of fitness that day as I thought he was a lot fitter than he was.

“Tim said let’s go chasing and I thought OK, it’s a bit of a brave man’s route. He wasn’t that great the first couple of schooling sessions at home, but ever since Warwick he just thinks these (fences) are brilliant and loves jumping them. He was a little bit out to his left, but we had a chat beforehand to contain that as much as possible.

“It is great watching those horses over the two-mile chase track here. I’m delighted to be on the winner’s roll with him.”

Assessing future plans Skelton earmarked the Grade Two Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick in February as possible target, ahead of an outing in the Sporting Life Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival, for which he was cut to 10-1 by Sky Bet and 8-1 by William Hill.

He added: “We will look at the spring targets. We will probably go back to Warwick for the Kingmaker, then look at the Arkle then look at Liverpool as well. He is a pleasure to have and has been a remarkable horse for us, a dual Grade One winner.”

Paul Nicholls will consider stepping runner-up Hitman up in trip on his next start, although he has not ruled out taking on the winner again.

He said: “It was a good run. Harry Skelton nicked it from the back of the Pond Fence and five lengths is hard to get back. It was only the fifth run of his career and second over fences and it was very good.

“All we did was stay on up the hill and his inexperience just caught him out down the back and those Railway fences. I wouldn’t be afraid of taking on the winner again with a bit more experience.

“He might get a bit further and he might be ideal for the Scilly Isles and Pendil.

“It was a good run for a young horse.”

Allmankind out to double Grade One tally in Henry VIII

Allmankind attempts to add a Grade One win over fences to his top-level victory over hurdles, in the Planteur At Chapel Stud Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown.

Dan Skelton’s charge established himself one of last season’s leading juveniles, completing a hat-trick in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow, but had to make do with minor honours in third in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham.

After being beaten again on his reappearance at Cheltenham in October, connections decided to switch to the larger obstacles – and he could hardly have been more impressive when making a successful chasing debut at Warwick last month.

Skelton said: “Allmankind is ready for Saturday – obviously this has been the plan since he won at Warwick.

“It’s a big step up for him, and all the others in there. I think they’re a pretty fancy bunch, but hopefully he’ll go pretty close.

“He did everything well at Warwick, so fingers crossed.”

Allmankind is one of three four-year-olds in a six-strong field, along with the Paul Nicholls-trained Hitman and Jamie Snowden’s Ga Law.

French import Hitman has his sights raised significantly after winning by 30 lengths on his British bow at Ffos Las.

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Nicholls, who has withdrawn Wincanton scorer Tamaroc Du Mathan due to the ground, told Betfair: “I think the world of Hitman – who made a stunning debut for us in a decent novice Chase at Ffos Las 27 days ago.

“He has improved since then, jumped like a natural on Wednesday morning – and the softer the ground at Sandown the more he will like it.

“While he does lack racing experience compared to some of his rivals, he has a huge amount of talent, and I’m very excited about him.”

“This is obviously a big step up in class for Tamaroc Du Mathan, who has taken a fair old time to mature. But he is still only five, the talent has always been there, and he finished a close fifth in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury in February.”

Ga Law is already three from three over fences, most recently landing the Grade Two “Rising Stars” Novices’ Chase at Wincanton.

“His half-brother Val De Law was third in a Grade One at Aintree, so we were always looking forward to seeing him over a fence,” said Snowden.

“Last season we were always treading water a bit waiting for this season to come around.

“He has looked really good, what he has done so far. We will now step him up to Grade One, and on the back of this we will see where we go in the spring.”

Colin Tizzard’s Eldorado Allen also puts his unbeaten record over fences on the line, following wins at Newton Abbot and Cheltenham.

Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father, said: “He’s been in cracking form all season.

“Whether Gumball had him beat when he fell at Cheltenham last month is anybody’s guess, but he wasn’t stopping.

“The rain they’ve had at Sandown will certainly help him – he’s got some good course form to his name and he’s a good horse on his day.”

Connections of Phoenix Way acknowledge he must raise his game after winning by a neck on his fencing introduction at Warwick for Harry Fry.

Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, said: “He did it nicely the first day, and Harry’s very happy with him. He needs to improve again, but hopefully he can give a good account of himself.

“We’ll find out more about this weekend. But he’s in good form, and we’re hoping for a good run.”

My Drogo delivers for Dan Skelton in Newbury opener

My Drogo appears to have a bright future after securing a surprise success in the Watch Racing Free Online At Ladbrokes “National Hunt” Maiden Hurdle at Newbury.

All eyes were on Flinteur Sacre, a brother of multiple Grade One winner Sprinter Sacre, but it was the Dan Skelton-trained My Drogo who opened his account over hurdles at the first time of asking.

Despite being novicey at a number of his hurdles, the 100-30 shot found plenty up the run in after forging clear late on to defeat Saggazza by a length and a quarter, with Flinteur Sacre finishing a disappointing fourth.

Skelton said: “I was expecting plenty, especially after his good run at Cheltenham (second last month). I know he went off 50-1 in a bumper there, but that didn’t reflect what we thought. At home he has always been very precious.

“He had been so good jumping at home, I was a bit surprised he went out there and was very novicey at the second and splattered the fourth. The third last was brilliant and the last wasn’t great either. I think it showed what a big engine he has to overcome all that.”

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The Alcester handler will continue to take small steps with My Drogo, who was introduced at 33-1 for the Supreme and 25-1 for the Ballymore by Ladbrokes, before taking aim at bigger targets.

He added: “We will perhaps go one more low key before going fancy – I just don’t think he is ready for those types of day yet. As we get through the season into the spring, I think he will be a two-and-a-half-mile horse.”

Elusive Belle appeared to appreciate a return to better ground when scoring over fences at the second time of asking in the Ladbrokes Daily Odds Boosts Chase.

Having found testing conditions against her in a Listed contest on her chasing debut at Bangor, the Nicky Henderson-trained six-year-old looked much happier on a sounder surface, running out a four-length winner.

Henderson said of the 13-2 winner: “It was bottomless, heavy ground at Bangor that was almost unraceable. She got quite tired in that ground and I think anybody would have. She was much happier on that ground. Sam (Waley-Cohen) gave her a really good ride.

“Two miles is her trip and they went a right good gallop as she can go some. She won’t be one for the mares’ chase at Cheltenham as she won’t get the trip, she could be one for a Grand Annual later on.”

Paul Nicholls will step Bravemansgame up to Grade One company on his next start following his facile success in the Play Ladbrokes 5-A-Side On Football Novices’ Hurdle.

The five-year-old barely had to get out of second gear to add to his recent Exeter success, with the 8-11 favourite gradually winding up the pace entering the home straight before cruising home seven and a half lengths clear of Es Perfecto.

Nicholls said: “He did that well and we thought we would do that en route to coming back for the Challow here.

“After his last run, we were thinking about going straight to the Challow, but I just felt he came out of his last race so well that we would give him another run for experience before going for a Grade One.”

Bravemansgame was introduced at 16-1 for the Ballymore by Ladbrokes, while Paddy Power offer 25-1 for the same contest.